Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
by Stephen Greenblatt
A review by Alastair Fowler
Will in the World is a readable book about Shakespeare's life. What
sort of book remains unclear -- fact or fiction, criticism or history? Of course,
the boundary between biography and novel has blurred. All biographies must in
part be imaginary constructs, especially when the subject is historical and
the evidence incomplete. Nevertheless, some build on researches so thorough
that they contribute to history. (Claire Tomalin's Samuel
Pepys comes to mind.) With Shakespeare, the documentary evidence is fragmentary
and enigmatic: his biographers have been tempted to spin more or less well grounded
speculations. We have had Katherine Duncan-Jones's well- informed "ungentle"
Shakespeare and Jonathan Bate's lover
of Southampton. Why not, then, Stephen Greenblatt's victim Shakespeare?
Several chapters of Will in the World imagine the young Shakespeare's
formative experiences. Pursuit of Will's "primal scene of theatricality" begins
with the first play of someone else: one Willis, who stood between his father's
legs to watch The Cradle of Security at Gloucester, thirty-eight miles
from Stratford-upon-Avon. John Shakespeare and his family must similarly have
attended the Coventry mystery cycle still being performed in 1579. Robert Nye's
novel Mr Shakespeare
is pressed into service to supply a visit by William, aged eleven, to Kenilworth
to see the Earl of Leicester's splendid entertainment of the Queen. Did Shakespeare,
Greenblatt asks, recall the Kenilworth festivities in his image of Arion in
Twelfth Night? Some may feel uneasy at this: Nye, in promising less biography,
achieves more. Besides, other speculations come to mind: John Shakespeare was
too busy to go to Kenilworth; William read about Arion in Ovid, or in emblematists
and mythographers who actually discuss meanings relevant to Twelfth Night
(such as the power of music). But Greenblatt, certain Shakespeare was not "bookish",
prefers extraliterary sources.
Next he explores a bolder imagining, that secret Catholicism determined much
of Shakespeare's life. This takes up older speculations by Sir E. K. Chambers
and Oliver Baker; the more thorough investigations of E. A. J. Honigmann; and
the recent conjectures of Richard Wilson. Was the Shakeshaft serving the Lancashire
Catholic landowner Alexander Hoghton the same as William Shakespeare? Sixteenth-century
orthography was chaotic. Still, there is no evidence Shakespeare ever used the
spelling Shakeshaft, a Lancashire name. On such foundations, Greenblatt invents
a narrative of Shakespeare's acquaintance with Edward Campion, the Catholic
martyr. Didn't Campion and Shakespeare both come from "comparatively modest"
Shakespeare's Catholicism explains his leaving Stratford: the Protestant inquisition
was closing in. Once in London, he used the famous story about poaching deer
as cover; but he really left Stratford for a far more serious reason: to escape
Sir Thomas Lucy, the McCarthy-like "relentless persecutor of recusancy". Would
it be a fatal objection that Lucy seems not to have had an impaled park until
1618, or that Lucy seems to have been an amiable individual, who kept a company
of players? Greenblatt's imaginings are above chronology, and above distinguishing
between the two Sir Thomas Lucys. Besides, the Lucy digression serves to support
the construction of Elizabethan England as a police state. Catholicism also
"explains" Shakespeare's low-profile existence in London. On the run from Commissar
Lucy, driven by "the great fear" of Elizabeth's torturers, he made for the Smoke,
where he left few traces because he wished to escape notice.
The notion of Shakespeare as crypto-Catholic in early life is not totally implausible.
But there is no firm evidence for it, certainly not John Shakespeare's "spiritual
testament". After long debate about its authenticity, scholars now regard the
document as a forgery. (Greenblatt claims that "more recent scholarship has
cautiously tended to confirm its authenticity" but doesn't substantiate this.)
As alderman, John Shakespeare engaged in Protestant iconoclasm; one's imagination
strains to combine official iconoclast with private crypto-Catholic. Another
story centres on William's aspiration to become "gentle": to enter the top 2
per cent of Elizabethan society. (Historians put the proportion at 5 per cent
or more; but Greenblatt likes to bring home the evils of hierarchy.) Evidence
of Shakespeare's aspiration is the renewal, in 1596, of his father's 1576 application
for a grant of arms. The twenty-year gap is attributed to John Shakespeare's
financial problems, due to alcoholism, recusancy fines, or litigation. (Another
explanation, not considered, might be the declining value of land rents.) Greenblatt
disapproves of rank being bought, although it is not clear whether he opposes
social mobility in principle. The Heralds' genealogical fictions were a way
of endorsing meritorious claims to promotion. Incidentally, the "official of
the College of Heralds known grandly (after the badge of office that he wore)
as the Red Dragon Pursuivant" was actually Rouge Dragon, named after a royal
badge. William the social aspirer seeking heraldic display jars with William
the Catholic fugitive keeping a low profile; but Greenblatt is not interested
The same financial difficulties are supposed to have kept William from attending
Oxford or Cambridge. This sundered him from the "University Wits" -- Thomas
Nashe, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, and the rest. These
may have looked down on William as a social "upstart", although Greene is elsewhere
called Shakespeare's crony. Greenblatt characterizes the Wits, vividly but conjecturally,
in a group biography of disparate writers who hardly formed a group. On Kyd,
Greenblatt accepts the libels of the popular tragedian's envious rivals, and
has him eking out his existence as a scrivener, without mentioning his mysterious
A recurrent theme is Shakespeare's unhappy marriage. Greenblatt imagines it
as so dysfunctional that Shakespeare found it difficult to portray "fully achieved
marital intimacy": his married couples generally display lack of trust if not
"mutual loathing". But how many completely happy marriages are to be found in
drama generally? Untroubled marital felicity lacks dramatic interest. What poisoned
Shakespeare's marriage, in Greenblatt's view, was religious difference: "Will's
family almost certainly leaned toward Catholicism, and Anne's almost certainly
leaned in the opposite direction". The evidence? Well, Anne's father, and brother
Bartholomew, both asked for simple funerals; "honestly buried" was the "code
phrase" for a stark Puritan burial. How absurd. It was an idiom anyone might
use whose family lacked the wealth for ostentatious ceremonies. The archbishop
James Ussher (no Puritan he) wrote, "friends and neighbours should see that
his body be honestly (decently) buried and Funerals decently performed". Similarly,
Greenblatt infers from Bartholemew Hathaway's phrase "His elect" that "these
are people far different from . . . the Catholic Ardens". The term "elect",
however, was not distinctively Puritan, or even Protestant. Hooker, Milton,
all sorts and conditions of Christians used it: it even occurs in the Roman
Catholic Rheims New Testament of 1582 (Romans 8: 33, "Who shall accuse against
the elect of God?"). Greenblatt's argument is without substance: the Hathaways
were most likely conforming Catholics, as Shakespeare's biographer Park Honan
Another reason for thinking the marriage unhappy is that William was "dragged
to the altar"; elsewhere, contrariwise, he may have "eagerly" agreed to marry.
Shakespearean passages about "wedlock forced" and "hasty marriage" are applied
as proof texts to show their author thought his own eagerly forced marriage
"an almost certain recipe for unhappiness". But Shakespeare's hasty marriage
was by no means so unusual as to suggest it was specially constrained. Certainly,
"bastardy was severely frowned on by the community". But a great many Elizabethan
children were conceived out of wedlock; "hasty" marriages were extremely common.
In the latter sixteenth century recorded prenuptial pregnancies (baptisms less
than eight and a half months after marriage) were over 20 per cent. Since Greenblatt
supposes that, without the possibility of divorce, satisfaction in marriage
was highly unlikely (an astonishingly anachronistic assumption), it comes as
no surprise when he interprets Shakespeare's bequest of his second best bed
to Anne as expressing calculating hatred.
Materials for historical biography are of four types: documents; the subject's
own writings; the subject's books; and the social conditions of the time. Shakespeare
documents are easily accessible in S. Schoenbaum's invaluable collections (which
Greenblatt is sometimes curiously reluctant to draw on). And it is not difficult
to discover (as Honan does) some of Shakespeare's books. The sources of his
plays, for example, show he must have owned or borrowed copies of Holinshed's
Chronicles, North's Plutarch (his patroness the Countess of Derby
gave an inscribed copy to a "William"), Henri Estienne's Katherine de Medicis,
and (from his friend Field the printer) The Mansion of Magnanimity (1599)
by Richard Crompton. And Shakespeare apparently signed his name in a copy of
William Lambarde's Archaionomia. Ignoring all this, Greenblatt asks:
"Why have scholars, ferreting for centuries, failed to find the books he must
have owned -- or rather, why did he choose not to write his name in those books
. . . ?" And he answers that in Lancashire "Shakespeare would already have imbibed
powerful lessons about danger and the need for discretion, concealment, and
fiction". In any case, Greenblatt's Shakespeare was just not "bookish".
As one might expect, Greenblatt relies heavily on general social conditions.
He paints a vivid picture of Shakespeare's world: of the brutality, violence,
spectacular punishments, and ideological repressions of Elizabeth's tyranny.
With a novelist's copiousness, he weaves disparate strands into an entire imaginary
world. Sympathizing with Catholics and other oppressed groups, he certainly
doesn't idealize Elizabeth's reign. Yet he sympathizes with Elizabeth herself.
Is his rendering of Shakespeare's world fair? It is not a proportionate one.
Greenblatt passes over many salient features, such as the rapid changes in the
lexicon through foreign borrowings; the growth of international trade and finance;
and the vast increase of geographical knowledge and natural history through
exploration. His London is not the London of Bacon and Gresham; yet neither
does he do justice to the provincial Great House culture, then almost as important
as the universities for philosophy, literature and science. His is a world of
stereotypes and flabby shibboleths.
But what most undermines confidence in his generalizations is their frequent
inaccuracy. He has only to state a fact or a figure to blur or falsify it. His
old St Paul's Cathedral "boasted the longest nave in Europe"; the real old St
Paul's hadn't the longest nave even in England: Winchester Cathedral had that.
He exaggerates London's size: "With a population nearing 200,000, it was some
fifteen times larger than the next most populous cities in England and Wales;
in all of Europe only Naples and Paris exceeded it in size". The real London
wasn't yet fifteen times as large as Norwich. Naples didn't merely exceed it,
but was ten times as large at the 1595 census. And Naples and Paris weren't
the only larger cities. In 1600 Constantinople had more than three times London's
population. London (less than 60,000 in the early sixteenth century) also had
to overtake Salamanca (133,000 in 1541 and 176,000 in 1591). Elizabethan Stratford,
he writes, was "a town with only some 2,000 inhabitants". That "only" speaks
volumes about Greenblatt's geography. For, of the 600 or 700 towns in Shakespeare's
England, at least 600 were smaller than Stratford, which was large for a market
Dates, important for a biographer, tend to elude Greenblatt. He supposes the
assassination scare of 1580 was "early in (Elizabeth's) reign". Early, after
twenty-two years? In 1600, Greenblatt's Shakespeare was "still young (only thirty-six
years old)". With average male life-expectancy around forty-five, Shakespeare
was approaching old age: forty, in the Four Ages scheme, was senecta. Greenblatt
deals in historical "moments" of elastic duration. So, the 1520s were "the crucial
moment in the development of the English language, the moment in which the deepest
things, the things upon which the fate of the soul depended, were put into ordinary,
familiar, everyday words". But, with the exception of Tyndale's New Testament,
all the fifty or so English translations of the Bible belong to the 1530s or
later. Tyndale's 1525 New Testament was immediately seized by the Cologne authorities.
Copies of his 1526 New Testament, also published illegally, were smuggled into
England, but almost all were confiscated or bought in and burnt. Readings from
the Scriptures in English seem not to have begun until 1538. Greenblatt writes
as if religious concerns were being put into English for the first time: as
if all the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English religious literature, from Aelfric
and Wulfstan to Wycliffe and Kempe and Usk and Lydgate, never existed. In reality
it is Greenblatt's own 1520s moment that never existed. Such imaginary moments
abound here, as when Shakespeare "first walked across the bridge, and very soon
after" he recognized "the traitors' heads included two he knew".
The succession of "moments" sometimes gives an impression of feverish hurry,
like history on amphetamines. When Edward VI died, Mary Tudor "moved at once
to reverse direction" and stop the Reformation. In real history, as many as
twelve of Edward's councillors found places at Mary's council table. And "leading
Protestants" did not at first have to "escape" to Germany or Switzerland: their
migration was encouraged rather than hindered. Again, Greenblatt's Elizabeth
"quickly made it clear" at her accession in 1558 that the Reformation would
continue. The historical Elizabeth, however, carefully avoided such clarification:
she appointed as secretary a politique who had served under Mary; she kept candles
in her private chapel; and for months she dissembled her ecclesiastical policy
so well that she received an offer of marriage from Philip II of Spain. The
Edwardian Book of Common Prayer was not reintroduced for six months.
It almost looks as if Greenblatt is drawing here on the film Young Bess.
His supporters often have occasion to remind us that any scholar can be faulted
in little matters of fact. True. But there are errors and errors. These reveal
a mind quite innocent of British history.
Even in cultural studies Greenblatt misleads. He writes that the grammar school
curriculum "made few concessions to the range of human interests . . . no biology,
chemistry, or physics; no economics or sociology". Economics could hardly be
included: it was still in its infancy. But the curriculum certainly included
science: Christopher Johnson at Winchester taught meteorology, geometry and
astronomy. Nor was "rote memorization" valued above memoria ad res. Again,
why does Greenblatt deplore the "analysis of texts"? At a good school, the "elaborate
exercises in imitation" seem to have been much like those in creative-writing
Turning to female victims, he thinks it "likely" that "Anne (Hathaway) could
not read or write". Why likely? The first decades of Elizabeth's reign, when
the Shakespeares were educated, stood out as "a period of unusual educational
excitement and achievement" (David Cressy). But "Girls were excluded from both
grammar schools and universities". Excluded is misleading; as John Morrill points
out, this was not a gender issue: girls were simply prepared for their future
occupations. Little time for anything else, when average female life-expectancy
was so short -- in some areas, only nineteen years. In any case, reading and
writing were taught at ABC schools, where girls sat side by side with boys.
Not a word here about the movement to establish boarding schools for girls,
or about academies like Robert White's Ladies Hall at Deptford, which performed
a masque before Queen Anne in 1617. If all else failed, surely our greatest
writer (who according to Aubrey had been a schoolmaster) would have taught his
own wife to read.
Greenblatt's victims include manual labourers: "There was virtually no respect
for labour; on the contrary, it was idleness that was prized and honoured".
Didn't the Protestant Reformers revalue labour and the active life, then, or
see the contemplative, monastic life as idle? Didn't Luther discuss "whether
we all ought to . . . work with our hands?" And what about Hugh Latimer's "Sermon
of the Plough"? More surprisingly, perhaps, the account of literature and drama
also misleads. It is not the case that Shakespeare most often used the Bishops'
Bible; he used Coverdale's Great Bible of 1539 and the Geneva Bible of 1560.
Elizabethan homilies were not written by impersonal "central authorities", but
by John Jewel, mostly. One was by Edmund Grindal (Spenser's Algrind), an individual
who had a way of getting into trouble with the "central authorities". Greenblatt
thinks that "in Shakespeare's work there are relatively few signs of the influence
of Spenser"; he could have found many if he had consulted the book-length studies
of Shakespeare and Spenser by A. F. Potts and W. B. C. Watkins; but Greenblatt
doubtless wished to minimize Spenser's bookish influence.
When Greenblatt describes the acting company on tour as comprising "six to
a dozen" strolling players, he quite misunderstands his sources. Even in the
1580s, the "six to a dozen" were only the leading actors; to these must be added
three or more hired men and as many boys. Modern research based on minimum casting
analysis (notably by Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth Maclean) has shown that many
plays required at least fourteen actors; while the records show companies with
fifteen, twenty, or more actors. Perhaps Greenblatt is thinking of a cut down
play prepared for touring and used over and over? His touring companies "could
get by with a modest repertory". But Thomas Crosfield's diary lists the Salisbury
Court company as travelling with as many as fourteen plays. In any case, travelling
was a normal activity for an acting company. We have to give up the older idea
of occasional tours bringing culture from London to the benighted provinces.
When Greenblatt ventures on criticism of Shakespeare's plays, he distorts
them unmercifully. On The
Merchant of Venice, he is not content to focus on the "conceptual" Jew.
He gives over twenty-six pages to a digression about a Jewish immigrant, the
Queen's physician Roderigo Lopez, implicated in a popish plot to poison her.
Shylock's tragedy (that by flinching from self-sacrifice he breaks his "oath
in heaven") is passed over. In view of Shakespeare's many business dealings,
the play's biographical interest might be thought to include its censure of
London merchant ethics. Instead, Greenblatt tamely concludes that the play's
ending would have been "unsettling". A serious limitation to the criticism is
insensitivity to word associations. Greenblatt relates a speech of Polonius,
for example, to Robert Greene's attack on Shakespeare as "an upstart Crow, beautified
with our feathers". This phrase "must have stung", for Polonius, reading aloud
Hamlet's love letter, stops at "most beautified Ophelia", and remarks "that's
an ill phrase (word), a vile phrase, 'beautified' is a vile phrase". Now, there
is not the slightest reason to connect Hamlet's use of "beautified" with Greene.
It was a fashionable word in complimentary address: Thomas Nashe uses it in
his dedication of Christs Tears over Jerusalem (1594), and so does R.
L. in Diella (1596). It occurred in the Homily on Matrimony, as
Harold Jenkins notices in his easily accessible edition of Hamlet. The
word was made fashionable by Sir Philip Sidney, a paragon of taste: it is used
prominently in the Arcadia (1590), where Philoclea mourns her sister,
"Alas, thou art gone to beautify heaven". Shakespeare himself, moreover, often
used "beautify" elsewhere. In calling the word "vile", then, Polonius betrays
his own lack of taste. Not to see that is to get the speech and the character
There is only one interesting idea in Greenblatt's criticism of the plays.
He suggests that Shakespeare frequently created mysterious verisimilitude by
deliberate omission, by "the radical excision of motive". This may seem a brilliant
generalization until you ask yourself whether any earlier drama gave more information
about motive than Shakespeare's. For the modern mimesis of inward, psychological
motivation was in fact newly emerging in Shakespeare's time. Excision of motivation
was impossible: it wasn't there to excise. Greenblatt, with all his imagining,
finds it hard to imagine a state of art or society other than his own.
Greenblatt's imaginings mostly depend on literalistic biographical assumption.
Repeatedly conflating dramatist with characters, he imagines each play as directly
transcribing Shakespeare's life. Each character is Shakespeare himself, or someone
Shakespeare knew. Consequently the dramatist is robbed of creative invention.
He is a slave to his experience; the imagination is all Greenblatt's. "There
is no easy, obvious link between what Shakespeare wrote . . . and the known
circumstances of his life", Greenblatt reminds us. But in practice he keeps
forging just such easy links. Following Honan, he sensibly enough identifies
Stratford material in
The Taming of the Shrew. Then he takes off: like Christopher Sly, Shakespeare
"too felt dazed by his recent transmutation. He had gone from a provincial nobody
to a professional actor and playwright". At the same time Sly resembles Shakespeare's
father, his debts and drunkennes "reminiscent of home". And Falstaff, too, recalls
John Shakespeare, "a father who cannot be trusted"; although elsewhere Falstaff
is Greene. Biographical assumptions are compulsive. Hamlet has only to say "I
have bad dreams" for Greenblatt to write "Shakespeare's bad dream". Romeo has
only to mention a glove, for Greenblatt to recall that the stock in trade of
John Shakespeare the glover was "the stuff of metaphor" for his son. (Yet gloves
are far more salient in The
Changeling, without Middleton's father being a glover.) If witches appeared
in an Oxford play in 1592, Shakespeare must have attended. Shakespeare the Warwickshire
peasant rides again; not being "bookish", he had to draw everything from life.
Throughout, the method is to imagine a biographical possibility, then build
further speculations as if inferring from evidence. "Let us imagine that Shakespeare
found himself from boyhood fascinated by language, obsessed with the magic of
words". But imagining must be turned into argument: "There is overwhelming evidence
for this obsession from his earliest writings, so it is a very safe assumption
that it began early". With hardly a pause, imagining has become a safe assumption.
Never mind that the "earliest writings" are not very early. Details can now
be touched in: Shakespeare's obsession may have begun "from the first moment
his mother whispered a nursery rhyme in his ear: 'Pillycock, pillycock'". Again
the fatal switch from subjunctive to indicative: "This particular nursery rhyme
was rattling around in his brain years later, when he was writing King
Lear". Perhaps becomes was, excluding other possible words -- in which,
perhaps, Shakespeare had just heard the rhyme for the first time -- or invented
it (for there is no evidence it existed earlier). Nothing wrong with imagining,
so long as the biographer sticks to perhaps, no doubt, in all likelihood, presumably,
or even the dangerous almost certainly.
Will in the World brings Greenblatt to a turning point. After the vacuous
textuality of deconstruction, new historicism seemed to reaffirm the historical
context that meaning depends on. Many serious scholars were relieved to hear
that unified authorial personalities might still exist. In the United States,
Greenblatt became unchallenged leader of the new movement. It subsequently emerged,
however, that he had little interest in the complications of real history. He
preferred a simplified, cultural-studies model put together from factoids, stereotypes
and ideological assumptions, draped round the Foucaldian monolith of repressive
government. Worse, Greenblatt's manipulation of evidence was exposed by Anne
Barton (the affair of the cardinal's hat), Michael Neill (the incident of the
Bantam torture), and others. After that, it would be no surprise if Greenblatt
wanted to have done with scholarship altogether. Besides, with the talk of neohistoricism,
he may have apprehended the decennial changing of the guard that dominates criticism
in the US. Perhaps he thought, Time to refashion myself. Why not go retro,
and revive the speculative biographical criticism that went before formalism?
Not that Will in the World quite represents a retreat from new historicism.
Shakespeare is still "simultaneously the agent of civility and the agent of
subversion", and history is still a series of dateless "moments". Only, occasionally,
Greenblatt will have a fleeting qualm or misgiving, as when he writes "But,
to be fair" or "of course, these are merely speculations".
How did the intelligent Greenblatt come to write so sloppy a book? Almost
all the factual errors could have been avoided by consulting a few reference
books that wait on the shelves of every Renaissance scholar. Did he avoid looking
things up, because he knew he was right? Or did he sit light to history in the
hope his book would be filmed (Shakespeare on the Run)? Or was a more radical
self fashioning involved: a crossover into historical fiction? Such a move would
not be ridiculous. One can admire the imagination with which he keeps false
surmises going, against all the evidence. As fiction, however, Will in the
World is not an unmixed success either; its subject veers too much between
Shakespeare's imagination and Stephen Greenblatt's own. Yet, as biography, it
is not bookish enough, and shows contempt for its readers -- as if toy history
were good enough for them.
next book, How To Write, is forthcoming. He is the author of Time's
Purpled Masquers: Stars and the afterlife in Renaissance English literature,
1996, and the editor of The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth-Century Verse,